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What can technology do for stories?

In the first of a series of monthly essays about the interplay between technology and storytelling, Screen Media and Naturalism specialist at Cambridge University’s English Faculty, Professor David Trotter, looks at the value of interactivity.

What can technology do for stories? That’s a question which ought to induce a sharper sensation of vertigo than it actually does. For centuries, the main platform for the delivery of narrative fiction has been the printed book. The book is a medium so stable, so solid, and yet so versatile, that until very recently its existence could pretty much be taken for granted. Propped up in your lap, or stretched out on a flat surface, a novel is like a domestic pet. Stroke it, and it begins to purr. To look out over the edge of that safe place into the infinitude of the digital multiverse ought to make us feel sick, either with anxiety or with exhilaration. In fact, it doesn’t. Why?

Because the new challenge which greets us at each turn in the labyrinth is the same old challenge: interactivity. Interactivity seems to be regarded as the holy grail of those new media which might be thought to have the most to offer to, or have done the most to upset, literature. We allegedly want always to intervene in, and so to divert to our own ends, the stream of words flowing from an author to what would once have been, back in the printed day, the reader’s receptive mind.

In his Literary Platform review of the app version of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Gibbs complains that the app’s ‘date order’ and ‘random shuffle’ functions are only available after the user has read the book’s chapters (each conceived as a complete story) through in the correct order; as an add-on, rather than a ‘radical opening’ of the text. There’s no chance to intervene. He may well be right.

What interests me about his complaint is that it should establish as the ultimate criterion of the digital version’s success – that is, of what technology can do for stories – the reader’s ability to re-order the text in real time according to her own wishes: to (re-)make it up as she goes along.

If we were interactively to re-write Wallace Stevens’s ‘Notes towards a Supreme Fiction’ today, we would probably want to add to his three solemn injunctions – ‘It Must Be Abstract’, ‘It Must Change’, ‘It Must Give Pleasure’– a further one: ‘It Must Interact’. That, in effect, is what some of the most dazzling projects housed on the staunchly innovative Dreaming Methods site have quite explicitly done.

To me, however, Stevens’ criteria for a supreme fiction remain more compelling than the one we would be most likely to add to them (though I agree that they might in some circumstances benefit from its addition).

I’m not convinced that interactivity is all we want technology to do for stories, or that having it always and everywhere is an advantage. Interactivity is what capitalism now most wants to sell us. Doesn’t that in itself make you suspicious?

I think that we need to find a way to put the vertigo back into the original question about what technology can do for stories. That will involve a history of the uses to which electronic communications media have been put. How, and why, did interactivity emerge from more than a century’s worth of innovation as the (technological, social, moral, political) principle to which we now so widely subscribe? There was interactivity before digitalisation, not just in life (where would the species be without it?), but in some forms of mediation, and, to a degree, in literature.

Which brings me to a final point. Literature has always been rather good at capturing the moment of the emergence of new media: the moment at which the principles motivating the use of a particular technology (telephone, television, radio) are still undecided, raw, palpable. So we might also need to return to literature from a different angle. It wouldn’t be altogether implausible to answer your question with a further, mirroring question. ‘What can stories do for technology?’

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